I chose to look at these topics together since they are interrelated—they both regard dealing with sin. Confession is done by the sinner and confrontation by someone else. (Here I am discussing personal confession and not corporate confession.)
It seems to me that many Christians, especially conservative evangelicals, are very interested in pointing out people’s sin. So I am surprised that I have so far only found one to two passages in the New Testament regarding this. One of these is found in James 5:19-20: “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” While it does suggest that it is good to turn “a sinner from the error of their way”, it doesn’t give any parameters as far as how to do so. One important thing to note however, this seems to be taking place within a church community (it doesn’t seem to be talking about non-Christians).
The clearest passage on the subject of confrontation is in Matthew 18 beginning with verse 15. There are a few important things to note here. First of all, it begins with “If your brother or sister sins…” (NIV). Once again this suggests only confronting a relatively close fellow believer. Following this, at least some manuscripts say “sins against you” (NIV) or “hurts you” (The Message). In this case, the passage only gives us direction for pointing out wrongs done to us. Conversely, it doesn’t say we should point out everything which we think anyone is doing wrong (or against our beliefs).
Also interesting is the fact that I only find one verse which instructs us to confess our sins to one another. (In all other cases, it is unclear if the confession is to be done to anyone other than God.) James 5:16, in the course of talking about prayer says, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
I spent some time considering these topics and came to the conclusion that confession and confrontation should only happen within the correct context. Sin needs to be dealt with in the church, but there are right and wrong ways of doing so.
Publicly confessing a non-public offense seems likely to produce a number of unwanted effects on the recipients. It could produce shock, gossip, condemnation, sometimes even excitement. Outside the context of a personal relationship, this type of knowledge may cause the hearer to look down upon the confessor, unnecessarily judge them, and may get in the way of future interaction with that person. Also, it could make the hearer fearful and disheartened, or conversely, cause them to think that sin isn’t a big deal. On the flip side, public confession seems most likely to bring shame, guilt, and humiliation to the confessor. (If the sin is public, say for instance against a congregation, it still needs to happen.)
Once a wrong has been committed against another person, there’s usually no taking it back. Actions have consequences. Sometimes these can be reversed after the fact, sometimes not. Guilt is intended to bring a person to repentance, but once a person has repented (that is, confessed and turned from the wrong), there shouldn’t be continued guilt or condemnation. It will likely be right for the repentant to regret their action but not to be continually held down by guilt and condemnation. Therefore, I don’t believe it is our duty as Christians to remind people of their sins and to bring guilt and/or condemnation after the fact—especially those whom we do not have a personal relationship with.
I was in a situation a couple of years ago where an acquaintance was accused of wrong doing by some mutual friends. I debated what to do in that situation. Should I confront him? Should I cut-off contact with him though I didn’t even know his side of the story nor what actually happened? If I didn’t and maintained a relationship instead, did that mean I was condoning his actions? I decided that I wasn’t in a position to confront him because I didn’t have much of a personal relationship with him to begin with. And since I wasn’t in a position to confront him myself, I also wasn’t in a position to judge and condemn him. As I recall, I heard that he had apologized and expressed regret for his actions. Therefore, I decided it wouldn’t be right to continue to condemn him but rather it would be right to show him forgiveness and reconciliation. This didn’t excuse his alleged actions nor say that they didn’t inflict damage. But it wouldn’t have been right to hold him back in that once it had already been dealt with.
If you confront someone you don’t know about some sin you perceive in their life, they will likely feel attacked, judged and condemned. Whether you’re right or not, you may well be perceived as an arrogant jerk. This is because you have no context for saying these things to an unknown person. If, however, you point out a sin you perceive in the life of a friend and close fellow follower of Christ, the situation ought to be different. They ought to understand that you are (hopefully!) saying this because you care about them, not due to judgement or condemnation. They should understand that, while you might not approve of the sin, that you are going to continue to be their friend (unless they are personally harming you and refuse to repent—I’m not suggesting that we put up with abusive relationships for instance).
So, I believe that the close personal relationships among a group of fellow followers of Christ is the only context for confession and confrontation. I’m not sure exactly how you’d make a biblical case otherwise. Confession is for the purpose of repentance, accountability, and healing—all positive steps forward. Confrontation is done to guide a person away from harming others and themselves, to restore relationships, and to bring a person closer to God—again, all positive steps forward. To quote Frank Viola “A mark of sin is that it produces unnecessary pain in the lives of others. Sin and love are the exact opposites.” In other words, if the way you handle sin (both your own and others) knocks people down (others and even yourself), then there is a reasonably good chance that you may be sinning in your response to sin. (Understand that there is a difference between what is a positive step forward and what is easy, and conversely what is harmful and what is difficult. A positive step such as repentance may well be difficult, but it produces good fruit in the end. It may be easiest and least painful to ignore sin, however that will lead to the most harm in the long run.)